In Chetan Bhagat’s last novel, Half-Girlfriend, he tried to address the divide that is present between those who speak English well and those who cannot by relating the love story of an otherwise intelligent man from Bihar who is primarily Hindi-speaking and a girl from an elite Delhi school who bond over their common love for sports but find that language can be a powerful barrier.
His treatment of the subject aside, the fact remains that the theme of the novel was a valid one. In India, a country with a rich heritage of vernacular literature, it might come across as strange that the ability to communicate in a foreign language is seen as a measure of a person’s worth.
The reasons for this phenomenon are not hard to seek, of course:
The language that becomes important tends to be that of the elite class of the country. When the Brahmins were the dominant force in Indian culture, the knowledge of Sanskrit was essential to attain respect in society (of course, if you were a member of the wrong caste you could speak a dozen languages fluently and it would make no difference). Later, when India was ruled by Mughals, it was a knowledge of Farsi and Urdu that determined social status. Naturally, when the British took over, it was English that took precedence.
The world as it exists today is dominated by English-speaking nations. With the globalization of the world economy still being the USA, it is natural that for any role that involves interaction with foreign partners, a knowledge of English is seen as essential to career advancement.
India’s own variety of languages
India has over twenty official languages of its own, each with ‘official’ status. And the people of various states and regions love their own language often in exclusion of others. However that means that it is easier to make English a ‘language of communication’ for most Indians than impose any Indian language.
It is the most noticeable thing
After physical appearance, the first thing we notice about a person is the words he or she speaks, and since those tend to be in English, for the reasons outlined in point 3 above, a mistake made in speaking it leads to making a quite, often inaccurate judgement about the person. Basically, it is what we use to make a snap judgement about the abilities of the person in other areas – it takes time to determine a person’s technical ability, sales skills etc., but language skills are the most quickly apparent.
In a way, this tendency is symptomatic of Indian society –a tendency to want to pull each other down is ingrained in us, and knowledge of English has become and easy stick for us to beat each other with. And this is wrong at many levels, because the ability to speak English is an indicator of nothing beyond exactly what it is – an ability to speak English. It does not even indicate a person’s communication skills, because a person who speaks poor English could be a very accomplished linguist in his or her mother tongue. And of course, it is no indication whatsoever of his or her skills in other areas of life.
It would be far better for us to put aside our slavish devotion to a language – however beautiful it is – and celebrate each other as individuals, regardless of the ability to use it.